Posts tagged “creative writing

Modern Love with the PR Industry

Kara Simon, Assistant Account Executive

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My latest obsession has been The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column and podcast. I know, I know – I am late to the game, but…

IT. IS. AWESOME.

Not only are the stories told narrated by some of my favorite celebrities, but the writing styles, narratives and key messaging are the best, bar none. I am not just saying this because I majored in journalism, or because I idolize the all-knowing publication that is The New York Times. I am saying this because it is one of the best examples of storytelling today.

In the PR industry, it is our job to tell stories. A lot of the time they are happy, positive stories about industry successes and leaders making a difference. Other times, they are hard-hitting, pulse-rising breaking stories that you never see coming. Regardless of news’ tone, if we don’t turn it into a story, then it’s just another piece of news cluttering people’s inboxes or smart devices ready to be deleted.

So what goes into the making of a good story?

First, it is important to establish your characters. In our case, these are the individuals involved. What is their title? What is their position on the topic? Most importantly though, what makes them different from every other leader in the industry? The “Modern Love” column almost always establishes the character with a background story that makes them unique. It may not be completely relevant to the story at hand, but it is designed to make the character relatable, so the reader can place themselves in the shoes of that character and be more willing to accept the story. The same should be done in PR, so that a C-level executive can be seen as someone who an “Average Joe” would want to get to know.

Secondly, the plot. What is TRULY happening? Nobody, and I mean nobody, cares about all of the tiny intricacies of an event… So get to the point. For example, the best love stories are the ones that start with the two people who fall in love interacting from the beginning. The same goes for the best PR stories. They start with the headline upfront, and then gradually give way to supporting details.

Finally, the ending. The best endings are not endings at all. In fact, they leave the reader with a “But, what’s next?” thought bubble over their head. It is how you get them to think about your story long after their eyes depart from the screen the story was on. It is how you get them to wake up the next morning still thinking about your story, and begin looking for follow-up stories that may have come out the next day. The majority of the “Modern Love” stories do this as well. The last sentence leaves you with a lingering thought that draws your mouse downward and into the next love story. So, make your ending linger for as long as you want it to be remembered.

If there is one thing to take away from this article, PR professional or not, it is that stories have a way of impacting people. So, what is yours?

 

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The World on Your Doorstep

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Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

Recently I interviewed a new grad from one of the public universities in the Dallas area. Of particular interest, this individual told me that the first comm class of every morning started with a current events quiz. The purpose of this exercise is to prompt students to read a physical newspaper every morning, since that’s probably the best way to gain a broad overview of what’s happening in the world – and to score well on the morning quiz!

Some might say this exercise is a relic of times gone by, especially in light of research indicating that half of Americans get their news from Facebook and 10% of Americans think Facebook is actually a news outlet. Anything that gets students – and adults – reading and learning about issues in the world around them is a good thing, but I wonder what we’re losing in terms of knowledge with the decline of print media.

There are advantages to online news consumption, of course:

  • There’s the immediacy factor. When news happens, boom, it’s right there in multimedia, so we read, see and hear about it, not only from news sources, but from those in our social networks.
  • The presentation of news online also offers outlets the ability to incorporate interactive graphics to help explain the story in a way that amplifies – or even replaces – the narrative.
  • There’s the general notion of a news encounter. We’re online, scrolling through our Facebook feeds, and interspersed with a photo of a friend’s lunch are news items that we might not otherwise have scanned.
  • There’s the consumption of news itself. With so few Americans subscribing to news – either in print or online – the availability of information provides access to news that individuals otherwise might not seek out.
  • And of course there’s an environmental benefit, with less paper being used to produce a print product with an extremely short life span.

But what do we lose with the move away from print?

  • We lose the pass-by effect that comes with reading a physical newspaper. We may not read every article, but by flipping through the pages, we’re taking in all the headlines as we evaluate what we want to know more about. So even without reading a story, we’re gaining topline knowledge of key issues or items considered important or relevant enough to put in print.
  • We also lose a depth of information. With all the events occurring around the world, we shortchange ourselves by not delving deep enough into the facts, implications and analyses. The convenience of a snapshot in our Facebook feeds can never compensate for that level of detail.
  • Encountering news – a benefit of online news consumption – also is not the same as following news. Stories and events often play themselves over time, revealing new layers and nuances that help us form opinions.
  • And finally, as the success metrics for media have become more focused on eyeballs and click-throughs, media are presenting stories online with which consumers have the propensity to engage. Sometimes, what consumers want to read, and what they should read, are vastly different.

Knowledge is cumulative. It builds over time through repeated exposure to facts and opinions, and we build our understanding through context and various points of view. A well-written article – whether in print or online – teaches you something. It might present something familiar from an unfamiliar angle.

At the end of the day, I’m not giving up my newspapers, although after the morning read, I’m constantly online, consuming news from these same outlets in their digital counterparts. News outlets deliver the world on your doorstep, so open the door and start reading!


Starting with a Clean Slate

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Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

There are two parts to our business: The issues-driven and reputation-focused work that is largely directed by external factors, and the marketing-driven work that can have a much longer lead time. Summer hasn’t even officially started, but we’re already well under way in planning marketing-related for activities to support the year-end holidays, and even preliminary 2018 planning. One of the big questions in our business is: How do you come up with ideas?

I recently came across two articles that addressed the ideation issue, coming at it from two different perspectives. The first article suggests that busy people need a “Shultz Hour.” Of course, that needs a bit of explanation. George Shultz, who was secretary of state in the ‘80s, carved out an hour each week to sit in his office with the door closed, with a pad of paper and pen, and thought about the strategic aspects of his job. He instructed his assistant to interrupt him only if one of two people called:  The president. And perhaps equally importantly, his wife.

Shultz worked in an era before the interruptions and distractions of email, smartphones, Twitter and the like, but I’ve always been a firm believer in carving out some “alone time” to think about a creative problem or strategic issue, whether in my office, while exercising, or even if I’m just doing chores around the house.

The second article suggests a less conceptual approach to generating ideas:  Washing your hands. A group of psychologists conducted a study in which individuals were instructed to focus on a goal, and then to wash their hands. After the physical act of washing their hands, they were more easily reoriented toward a subsequent goal. The physical cleansing created a psychological separation from the previous activity, enabling the individuals to focus more clearly on a new goal.

In many ways, we’re merchants of ideas. Whether great ideas come from dedicated reflection time – or from clean hands! – it’s less about the source and more about the results. What tips do you have for generating ideas?


All Agencies, Big and Small

Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

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It’s the time of year when the agency holding companies officially put the previous financial year to bed, and the industry media compile their annual agency rankings. As a long-time veteran of the agency business, what strikes me every year is the way the descriptions of agencies have changed over the years – and this is true for both large and small agencies.

A scroll through the rankings – or indeed, an agency’s website – reveals prominent mentions of size (in terms of billings) and awards, as if size and awards are the best indicator of quality or fit for a client. What happened to pride of work? I suspect much of this is driven by the holding company model – holding companies, after all, are about maximizing the value of their portfolio of companies.

My own career has taken me through the doorways and hallways of agencies of all sizes, from largest-in-the-world and on down to the boutique agency that I now lead. If I had to distill down what I’ve learned about the pros and cons of big and small, I’d point to these five truths:

  • There’s a place for big, and there’s a sweet spot for small.  Big agencies do a great job with big clients. They’re structured to serve the broad needs of the multinationals that aren’t particularly price sensitive. But as the big agencies have grown bigger, and their cost structures size them out of certain assignments, there has been a clearer bifurcation of the market, delineating a real sweet spot for small agencies – not just in terms of company size or budget, but in terms of the type of senior-level talent and attention that really lives the client’s business in a way that a big agency can’t match.
  • To get to the soul of an agency, ask them to describe it.  Big agencies are proud of their size, and that tends to be the fallback description, along with awards. But most clients with whom I’ve worked over the years are more interested in what we’ve done for them, rather than the accolades we’ve received or the billings we’ve racked up. Small agencies, however, because they can’t fall back on size, tend to describe the work they do, and the results they’ve delivered for clients.
  • Big agencies are like accounting firms; small agencies are like investment firms. Every business need to generate a certain return to exist, but the big agencies for which I’ve worked have been like accounting firms, driven by the numbers rather than by delivering good work. Small agencies, on the other hand, are like investment firms, with the investment in this case being the clients and the people. Since there’s more at stake in a client relationship for a small agency, they tend to over-index on client service and the focus on results.
  • Big agencies give you access to talent; small agencies give you a talented team. True, big agencies have a deeper bench of talent across the network, which, of course, comes with a cost. Clients can tap into and out of this talent based on need. Small agencies, on the other hand, provide access to a talented team on a full-time basis. There can be a greater personal and professional integration between agency and client teams, with both focused on delivering great results.
  • Big agencies will sell you what they have; small agencies will sell you what you need. It stands to reason: If you have a lemonade stand, you’ll sell lemonade. In the same way, big agency employees are trained to sell what the agency offers, sometimes trying to fit the proverbial square peg in the round hole. They want to keep the revenue within their four walls. Small agencies, however, typically take a best-of-breed approach, and assemble the resources appropriate to the client need, agnostic of the source.

It’s a big world filled with big and small agencies and big and small clients. At the end of the day, an agency is best judged not by its size, but by the size of its ideas and the size of the results it can deliver for clients.


One for the Ages

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Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

Marketing is a young man’s game. Or so we’ve heard. We’ve also heard, “With age comes wisdom.” How to balance these divergent points of view?

Maybe the answer is in the question: It requires balance. As a society – and even as a profession – we’re quick to dismiss “older” workers. They’re not as fast. They’re out of touch with new technologies. They don’t present the image we want to portray.

And then someone comes along who not only proves us wrong, but blows these perceptions completely out of the water. Meet John Goodenough, recently profiled in the New York Times Sunday Review. His surname is a bit of a misnomer. He’s beyond “good enough.”

The batteries that power our laptops, phones, and even electric vehicles? He invented the technology. And he just filed a patent on a new kind of battery that has the potential to revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-powered vehicles. Oh, and did I mention that he’s 94?

The story of Mr. Goodenough should give us pause as an industry to re-consider our biases against middle-aged or older workers. It seems there are a few factors that stand out that suggest why this group of professionals can contribute in a way that may be different from young pros. Consider:

  • Knowledge is cumulative. We pick up much of our early professional learning in college, and then integrate that with real-world experience as we begin our careers. Our minds begin absorbing knowledge, but as we venture farther out into the world, our life experiences add to our knowledge, giving us a wider and deeper level of information on which to draw.
  • They think about things longer. Maybe the perception that middle-aged workers don’t move as fast as younger workers is a good thing. There’s more patience, and less of a rush to judgment. We think about things for greater periods of time, and we put things down and pick them up later, letting our minds work out potential solutions to problems or challenges, rather than running with the first answer. (Maybe that’s why we rarely see a 25-year-old judge?)
  • There’s an openness to new ideas.  As we gain more experience, our narrow vision slowly begins to widen, and we allow ourselves to take in convergent points of view and new ideas. It’s the natural course of evolution, but rather than a physical evolution, it’s a cognitive evolution.

Or maybe, as Mr. Goodenough posited, the real reason may be entirely different. In his own words: “You no longer worry about keeping your job.”

At the end of the day, a balanced workplace – with different generations bringing different experiences that lead to different ideas – should be the end game of what was typically thought of as the young man’s game. Are you game?

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Few Words to End the Week

 

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Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

The current issue of Fortune includes a terrific book excerpt that describes the art and science that leads an individual to breakthrough ideas. From personal experience, I’ve always valued the structured brainstorm or ideation session in which group-think builds and shapes ideas. But I don’t think I’ve ever left one of those sessions knowing that we’ve hit on the creative answer that we were seeking. Inevitably that comes later, and it comes through the process described in this new book, “The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.”

In brief, the book describes how you can get in your “genius mode,” and – not surprisingly to me – “one way is to sleep on it.” Throughout my career, I’ve found that some “alone time” – before or after a group brainstorm – is where the ideas really start to come together. Another piece of advice from the book when you’re facing a creative challenge? Take a walk. These activities or periods of time give your brain the space to focus, and to wander, letting your mind make connections among the knowledge you’ve built up over the years.

A few other bits that I’ve learned over the years:

  • Time isn’t just a luxury. Our industry is fast-paced, and carving out time to think shouldn’t be something that we think of as a luxury. Taking a walk isn’t necessarily idle time. It’s time to step away from whatever is on your desk – or whatever is distracting you on your phone – and letting your mind do its best work.
  • Read, read, read. I’ve counseled junior staff to follow their clients’ industries, as well as their own industries, whether in print, on air, or online. Great ideas happen when we connect what seem like disparate thoughts or pieces or information. So fill your mind with all sorts of information – whatever takes your fancy. At some point, all that knowledge will be used to make connections that lead to a collection of ideas, or even to that single breakthrough idea.
  • Don’t lose the idea! As the ideas percolate in your head – especially in that down time before you fall asleep – it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ll remember them in the morning. I’ve thought the same thing, only to wake up in the morning and ask myself, “What was that killer idea I had last night?!” Now I keep a pad and pen by my bedside. I’ve also called and left myself a voicemail when I’ve been out on a jog, or sent myself an email to make sure I have some notes on my thinking.

Now, how was I going to end this piece? I know I had a great idea … Oh yeah – when your day is done, sleep on some of these ideas.

 


A Few Words to End the Week

Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

Madonna had it half right:  We are living in a material world, but we are also living in a branded world. And as we face Daylight Saving Time, more than a few companies face saving-their-brand-reputation time.

  • Who’s on first? Or more accurately, whose name is on first base? This week, I had to attend an event at a major sports stadium. In the past, it was easy to identify where it was: the Cowboys played in the football stadium, the Rangers played in the ballpark, etc. But I found myself stopping to pause to think about which stadium I needed to head to: the one with the phone company’s name or the airline’s name or the life insurer’s name or the soft drink’s name or the other phone company’s name? Have we reached a saturation point in venue branding? Some interesting thoughts in this article.
  • Who’s sorry now? Uber apologizes. PwC apologizes. Yahoo apologizes. The Associated Press apologizes. The corporate apology follows a typical trajectory, beginning with “regret.” It all sounds very canned and corporate – and perhaps sounding like it lacks real regret. As protectors of our clients’ (internal stakeholders or external clients) reputations, have we over-mastered the corporate apology? Maybe the candid language in these corporate apologies offers lessons moving forward.
  • Who’s thinking creatively now? Admit it: Every time a “holiday” approaches, you think about how you can leverage it from a marketing or communications perspective. In fact, some of what we consider to be our everyday rituals – cereal for breakfast anyone? – were born out of marketing campaigns. Take a look here.

Something to chew on … until next week.